On Thursday night, I went to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and I chose to see it in High-Frame-Rate 3D so I could judge for myself the merits and flaws of 48 frames per second cinematography. I encourage you to read my previous essay on the 48fps controversy. Now that I've seen it firsthand, I am convinced that no matter what the benefits of the new technology might be, filmmakers have a long way to go before they get it right. In fact, I dare say that moviemakers will need to re-learn the language of cinema to keep audiences from paying too much attention to the high-frame-rate technique, which right now is distracting viewers from the plot and characters.
All the nice things that supporters of higher frame rates have said about the process are true, but everything negative that I have heard about 48fps was also true a thousand-fold. There are moments of hyper-clarity that showcased mountain vistas and sweeping landscapes better than anything I have so far seen captured on the silver screen. Yet, those moments were few and far between compared to the many scenes that frustrated me by taking me out of the story. If the point of HFR is to make motion more fluid, it failed miserably, because there were countless times that the higher frame rate made a simple pan of the camera too clunky and obvious or the battlefield action too jerky and unnatural. The opening scenes were the worst, feeling artificial rather fulfilling the intent of making them seem more real.
There were many wonderful scenes in The Hobbit, but there were also too many segments that appeared unforgivably amateurish, as if we were watching videogame graphics or a televised version of a stage play instead of a multimillion dollar motion picture.
Any success that this movie earns should be a testament to its great story and the marvelous job by director Peter Jackson and his superb cast, not a validation of the still experimental 48fps. It's a shame that the HFR filming technique distracts from the fine performances that were delivered by everyone, especially Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf, Richard Armitage as the heroic dwarf Thorin Oakenshield, Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown, Manu Bennett as the Orc Azog, and of course Andy Serkis as Gollum. The writers dispelled my concerns of expanding J.R.R. Tolkien's original book into a trilogy -- the additional scenes worked exceptionally well, and it was wonderful to see all those familiar faces again: Elijah Wood as Frodo, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Ian Holm as the older Bilbo, and especially Christopher Lee as Saruman.
The HFR trend will no doubt continue, as James Cameron has already vowed to create his upcoming Avatar sequels at an even higher frame rate! Hopefully they will not deny the problems of the format that are clearly apparent in The Hobbit and make the necessary adjustments in lighting, camera movement, special effects, makeup, projection, and whatever else might be needed to offer the best visual experience for the stories they aim to tell.